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Chris Leben trying to turn the corner

12/29/2010

Perception and experience have never been more important to a fighter than they will be for Chris Leben this week at UFC 125.

Leben faces Brian Stann on Saturday night (pay-per-view, 10 ET) at MGM Grand in Las Vegas. It's a fight that the more experienced Leben is favored to win, and one he is prepared to tackle.

The middleweight contender knows his way around the Octagon. And this year, his hard work has paid off -- Leben will bring a three-fight win streak into the cage against Stann.

Leben is confident he has the skill and experience to defeat Stann, but he knows that simply winning won't lead to the goal currently sitting atop his to-do list -- being named a coach on Season 13 of "The Ultimate Fighter."

Perception might work against him.

In October, Leben was arrested and charged with DUI. He is scheduled to appear in a Hawaiian courtroom sometime after his bout with Stann.
Until proved otherwise, he is an innocent man. But some might find it difficult to apply this hallowed American criminal judicial principle to Leben.

He had a prior DUI arrest, in 2005, when he was residing in Oregon.
Leben then moved to Hawaii in 2007, but Oregon authorities claimed he violated the terms of his probation and forced him to serve about a month in jail in 2008.

No one feels worse than Leben about his current and past legal situations. He is the first to admit having made mistakes, but he insists he has done nothing wrong this time.

From the moment of his recent arrest, Leben has been fighting to clear his name and restore his image. He will carry this personal battle with him to Las Vegas and hopes that fans will reserve judgment until all the facts have been revealed. He knows that's asking for a lot.

"It's something I've had to work on personally -- not being quick to judge," Leben told ESPN.com. "Unless you've walked in that person's shoes, you don't know why they are in the position they're in or the choices they've made.

Chris Leben Coaching is my passion. I'm a better coach than I am a fighter. I'm a colorful character and we know that makes for ratings.

-- UFC middleweight Chris Leben, a former "Ultimate Fighter" contestant who would like to return to the show as a coach

"Unless you know the full picture, you can't have a just answer. You're better off not judging at all."

If he is successful against Stann and the public withholds judgment of him, Leben believes his chances of being named a coach on TUF will improve.
And as a former participant on the show, Leben believes he has much to offer, especially experience -- inside and outside the cage.

Besides, coaching isn't foreign to Leben. He guides promising fighters each day at his Ultimate Fight School in Honolulu.

"Coaching is my passion," said Leben, who is 25-6-0. "I'm a better coach than I am a fighter. I'm a colorful character and we know that makes for ratings.

"I have a lot of kids at my gym who come from kind of the wrong side of the tracks, and they look to me, they listen to me. I've turned a lot of kids around at Ultimate Fight School. I can relate to them; I've been there.

"My goal is to progress and be a better human being. And [given] my role as a coach, I would love to be on the show and show that."

Leben isn't alone in welcoming a chance to coach. Stann, who on Saturday will make his second appearance at 185 pounds, would provide a unique coaching perspective on TUF. A highly decorated U.S. Marine Corps officer and former WEC light heavyweight champion, Stann (9-3-0) brings a level of maturity, discipline and leadership only a handful of people can match.

"It would be a wonderful experience, to take some younger fighters and try to bring them up and open doors for them -- and show them this sport in its entirety," Stann, 30, told ESPN.com. "It's certainly something I bring to the gym at Jackson's in Albuquerque, N.M., with the younger fighters.

"If I'm sitting alongside somebody like [UFC light heavyweight contender] Jon Jones, athletically there isn't much I have to offer that guy. He's 23, so maybe there are some words of wisdom I have to offer that guy. That's about all I can offer him.

"I try to do that because I care about people. My ultimate passion is leadership."

Though Leben can't equal Stann's military achievements, he has done his share to support the troops. Leben has also supported kids battling serious illnesses.

It's the little-known side of his character.

"I was in 12 countries this year to support the troops," Leben said. "I've volunteered on military bases this year. I've gone to hospitals to visit kids with terminal cancer."

While much attention is paid to Leben's legal difficulties, he refuses to talk much about his positive contributions to society. He isn't seeking praise or sympathy, only fair judgment. But if he is to be judged fairly, Leben must avoid all potentially bad situations. He knows he has no room for error.

"My plan is to go to Vegas and go to work. I don't have an after-party planned," Leben said. "I'm not staying in Vegas.

"I told the folks at UFC that I want the first flight out of there. I know I'm human; I know I've made mistakes. That's why, as soon as I'm done fighting, I'm getting on a red-eye plane.

"That will show people that Chris Leben is not this wild party guy who is out to cause trouble."

If he can avoid trouble inside and outside the Octagon this week, maybe UFC president Dana White will call Leben with an offer to coach on "The Ultimate Fighter."

Franklin McNeil covers MMA and boxing for ESPN.com. He also appears regularly on "MMA Live," which airs on ESPN2. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/Franklin_McNeil.